For a non-contact sport, baseball appears to involve plenty of fights. What is it about the game that produces confrontations?
In 1986 I had the privilege of sitting next to the great Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney during the NFLs first American Bowl at Wembley Stadium. One of the topics we discussed was the fascination that British fans have with baseball brawls, highlights of which seemed to occupy an unusual amount of hour on British television more, it seemed to me, than on American TV.
Its merely freshening to us, McIlvanney explained, to see the majority of members of the violence happens in the field instead of in the stands.
The late Bert Randolph Sugar, a historian of both boxing and baseball, thought that fighting in baseball is one of the dumbest things that happens in sports No player should ever hurl a punch in a baseball game unless he puts a pair of boxing gloves first. Hes risking his subsistence.
But they do, constantly. The impetus of this years much-publicized clash Memorial Day clash between Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper and San Francisco Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland seems clear enough, though a bit silly Strickland plunked Harper in the back with a 98 mph fastball in reprisal for something that happened three years ago.
MLB speedily handed down suspensions to both players but the baseball world seemed to love it. Cubs pitcher Jake Arietta, the 2015 Cy Young winner, texted to a former team-mate now on the Nationals: Human, that was awesome!
Most melees in baseball are set off by one of two incidents: pitchers hurling balls too close to hitters or athletes colliding into infielders at second base. From those two points of conflict spring an infinite variety of havoc and some famous fights.
Before the third game of the 1973 National League Championship Series, New York Mets second baseman Bud Harrelson, whose lifetime BA was an anemic. 234, quipped that The[ Cincinnati] Reds[ in the first two games of the series] have been hitting like me. Cincinnati took offense, and on an attempted double play, the pugnacious Pete Rose slammed into Harrelson at second base. Harrelson hurled a punch at Rose, everyone rushed to second base, and before order was restored there were nine split lips or bloody noses.
The longest brawl in major league history came in a 1984 game between the San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves. The first shot was fired by Braves pitcher Pasqual Perez who, on the first pitch of the game, for reasons ever known, reached Padres second baseman Alan Wiggins with a 95 mph fastball. After that, Perez was a target every time he came to at-bat. In the fourth inning, the Padres pitcher and director were ejected but the mission for retaliation continued until finally, in the eighth, Craig Lefferts succeeded in reaching him.
That did it. The ensuing fight was so nasty that fans jumped out of the stands to join in. It was nearly an hour before play resumed, and the aggressions werent over. In the ninth, a Braves relief pitcher Donnie Moore hitting another Padres batter, Graig Nettles. This produced a somewhat tamer fight than the earlier one. As one Braves player told: We were all too tired anyway. A total of 13 players, managers, and coach-and-fours were expelled and five fans were cuffed and taken to jail. The final toll was 13 players and coaches ejected and five fans cuffed and arrested.
But enough of the how: what is it about baseball that attains those grand, rolling brawl relatively common in a non-contact athletic?
Former player and director and current MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre, who has assured a few fights, has his own thinks. In basketball youre operating all the time, in football youre colliding at high speed, but baseball tightens the emotional fucking without much chance to let off steam.
This may seem un-complex, but athletics psychologists agree.
Professor Ken Ravizza, professor at California State University Fullerton and a sports psychology consultant, has worked with major league squads for more than two decades. These guys go through a lot together, he says. Theyre team-mates from February to the end of October, playing almost every day sometimes 13 games in 14 days. They form a bond in such a way that, say, basketball players, who might play once every three days, or football players, who play once a week, dont.
Baseball players have more of a concern for one another, a brotherhood thats stronger than in other athletics. And a little fisticuffs can serve to pull a team together.
Maybe getting mad is not bad. Dr Jack Llewellyn of the Center for Winning Performance in Kennesaw, Georgia, has worked with professional athletes in baseball, football, golf and auto racing. He explains: Ive never had much of a problem occasionally get mad. If they dont get mad, it means they dont care. The issue is how long they bide mad. Great players are the ones who recover from extreme feelings quicker than others.
The Strickland-Harper confrontation, where Strickland held a rancour for more than three years, is, Llewellyn believes ridiculous in a athletic where you really have to learn to get past the rage before the next game.
In fact, he tells baseball battles are less prevalent than in other athletics. In basketball or football, you largely find two guys squaring off to hurl punches. In baseball, everybody battles. It attains it look worse than it is. Or, at least, It looks like everyones fighting. I think a lot of the guys might pile on, figuring People going to pull me off.
In fact, the aesthetics of baseball brawls rather than the severity of the violence itself may be what stimulates them stand out. Fans going to a ball park dont expect to see difficulty, which isnt the lawsuit in hockey( I went to the fights the other night, goes the old gag, and it get so bad a hockey game broke out) so the shock of a fight in baseball is memorable.
And unlike football and hockey, baseball except for the catcher doesnt offer the players much protection from punches and head butts. A fight lookings a lot worse when there isnt padding and grilled helmets involved. We discourage brawling because thats not the kind of image we want to create, told an MLB executive who asked not to be named, and it puts off the family mobs we want to attract. But to be honest, theres another reason: nothing builds owners and executives angrier than losing a starter to an injury from a fight.
Ultimately, Llewellyn says, baseball dust-ups are the results of playing every day at a high emotional level. That creates tension and doesnt give you much of a style to relieve it. And in baseball there are a lot of days to build up that tension the MLB regular season is 162 games long. As Torre says: Baseball makes maximum tension while allowing only minimum opportunities for its release.
In some baseball brawls, though , not every player feels he has to let off steam. Former big league pitcher and Ball Four author Jim Bouton once related how during one game, a fight started on the mound, and as the players rushed out of both dugouts the pitchers in the outfield bullpens dutifully started trotting towards the infield. Bouton appeared over to his counterparts coming out of the opponents bullpen and told: Its a long way back to the infield. Cant we just fighting here? This, he told me, defused the moment: Its hard to fight when youre laughing.
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